What the CIO role will look like in 2026

Despite characterizations of the modern CIO as a straight-up business leader and strategist, many CIOs still spend the bulk of their time on technical issues. 

Many IT leaders today are focused more on security management as well as improving IT operations and systems performance than they are on top-line and strategic activities such as driving business innovation, identifying competitive differentiation opportunities, and even working on business strategy. 

Tech execs listed security management and improving IT operations and systems performance as their top two responsibilities in CIO.com’s 2023 State of the CIO survey, with 47% and 40% of tech execs respectively reporting as much. On the other hand, driving business innovation, identifying competitive differentiation opportunities and even working on business strategy fell in the bottom half of the CIO’s top 10 activities in 2023. 

CIOs, however, expect those priorities to flip in the years ahead. 

According to the survey, CIOs see their No. 1 task by 2026 being driving business innovation. 

Those findings mirror what other studies and individual CIOs see for the role several years out. IT leaders say the near-future CIO will spend more time working on business strategy, developing revenue-generating products and services, and influencing ideas on the enterprise roadmap than they do now. 

Granted, many CIOs are already involved in these endeavors to varying degrees. But among those who are, most engage in such work in a limited fashion, according to research on the role. 

That’s what’s going to change moving forward, with not just some but the majority of CIOs adding increasing levels of business-focused strategic responsibilities to their daily agenda and offloading more of the technical oversight tasks in upcoming years. 

“The CIO role in 2026 will be about influencing, leading, and governing, as opposed to technology selector, integrator, configurator, and customizer. And CIOs who are not on top of this before 2026 will find themselves having to catch-up,” says Joseph Bruhin, CIO of Breakthru Beverage Group. 

In other words, CIOs three years out will be even farther away from the technical chief of yesteryear and closer to corporate strategist. 

“With every company being digital, CIOs will take on the role of the architect of the company, not just the architect of digital,” says Vipin Gupta, former chief information, strategy and digital officer at Toyota Financial Services International and the 2021 MIT Sloan CIO Leadership Award Winner. 

IT leaders describe the CIO of 2026 and beyond as an “influencer,” “strategic thinker,” and “eloquence communicator and leader.” They say the CIO will need to be flexible, innovative, and nimble. And they stress the need for CIOs to be even more visionary than they are today, because they’ll have a lead role in shaping the organization’s future, not just support it. 

“CIOs will have an explicit role in creating business value,” says Bobby Cameron, vice president and principal analyst at research firm Forrester. 

What’s driving the CIO evolution 

As veteran IT professionals know, the CIO position has been evolving since it first appeared in the late 20th century

The role over the past several decades has moved away from a near-exclusive focus on uptime and availability to business enabler. And now the ever-increasing pace of technology change and the organization’s full reliance on IT to operate are further elevating the CIO’s contributions to enterprise success. 

“Leading and executing business strategies that drive growth, increase revenue and competitiveness will become one of the primary responsibilities of the future CIO,” says Rona Bunn, CIO of the National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD). “As I look at this from the lens of a CIO that leans on the progressive side, many CIOs have already started on the path to driving strategies focused on digital acceleration across the business.” 

She adds: “While it has been common practice for years in tech and leading-edge companies, I am beginning to see the widespread shift in the CIO community as CIOs are held responsible for driving innovation and development products that enable market expansion, new offerings, and driving revenue.”  

Several big events over the past several years have also pushed the CIO job into this new territory. 

Those events include widespread adoption of cloud and software-as-a-service; the arrival of digital natives in the workplace; the rapid embrace of AI and ChatGPT in particular; and the growing use of low-code software development platforms. All these trends have put more tech-creation capabilities into the hands of workers outside of IT and as a result have given CIOs and their teams time to pursue responsibilities other than basic software implementation. 

“One of the biggest drivers of the shift in the CIO role is less dependence from the business on the IT organization,” Gupta says. “As technology capabilities have evolved related to the development and management of automated solutions, it has become less complex to democratize technology implementation. Digital acumen and dexterity across the business are increasing daily providing a great opportunity for the CIO to lead more strategic initiatives.” 

Changing responsibilities ahead 

IT leaders expect those factors to change how IT operates within the typical enterprise and, consequently, how the CIO position itself works. 

To start, workers throughout the enterprise will have the power to create new tech capabilities and implement SaaS products into their workstreams. As a result, CIOs essentially will manage and support a highly distributed team, says Mark Taylor, CEO of the Society for Information Management (SIM). 

Research firm Gartner predicts that 55% of all successful emerging technology solutions will be delivered to “nontraditional” buyers — that is, business technologists and other workers outside IT — by 2025. 

“So IT’s role as an advisor and trusted consultant to the business will be more important,” says Erica Hausheer, senior vice president and CIO of software company Teradata. 

At the same time, as workers throughout the enterprise take on more work and as more organizations become 100% cloud, “all the plumbing becomes an external service,” Taylor says. 

That may mean that positions which have been staples within the IT department and how the IT department itself has been organized will change, too. Future CIOs could see the sizes of their teams dwindle, as they buy both more technology and IT staff as a service. 

(In a side note, Taylor predicts that that trend will push today’s IT workers who see themselves as specifically technologists “to find their greatest opportunities for career growth at pure technology companies.”) 

Meanwhile, as technology creation and procurement continue to move out from the centralized IT function and become more democratized, IT leaders say they expect CIOs will need to rely more heavily on their ability to persuade and influence to get others on board with how technology can and should be used.  

“They need to create compelling rationalizations for IT investments through their storytelling. It’s not only creating the vision but selling the vision,” says Joel Schwalbe, CIO of biotech company Transnetyx. 

Tech governor in chief 

Such changes also will require CIOs to spend more time on governance, too, according to multiple sources. 

“We’re going to have to get much, much better at governance, and we’re not just governing what people can and can’t do but how they do things,” Bruhin says. “We will be helping our business in a different way, giving them the guardrails and guidance and governance to help them not make the wrong decisions.” 

IT leaders say they already feel the increasing importance of establishing rules for whether, when, and how workers can use what technologies. As case in point, they cite the need to lead their C-suite colleagues in understanding the implications of workers using ChatGPT and their work in quickly setting policies to guide employees. 

Although the CIO role will morph into more of a business strategist position, many say it still will retain some technology responsibilities. 

For example, CIOs will continue to have responsibilities for ensuring that all technology creation and implementation happening across the enterprise, as well as the data generated by those capabilities, will work within the larger IT ecosystem. 

As Taylor says: “There still has to be someone who can knit all of it together.’” 

Furthermore, CIOs will be expected to do that work efficiently and effectively, just as they are today, Taylor and others say. 

“To sustain the effectiveness of technologies deployed, CIOs must take up the responsibility to reinforce practices such as agile product management that ensure expeditious delivery of value to customers. CIOs will also have a responsibility to lean in, ensuring that business practices use nascent technologies and good data management. CIOs will also own the advancement of digital capability at every level,” says Bunn, one of the speakers at Foundry’s May 2023 FutureIT event. 

Yet even though CIOs will retain oversight of the IT infrastructure, how CIOs navigate that responsibility in the future will change. 

CIOs will be responsible for a more loosely coupled ecosystem with more — if not most —technologies selected outside of IT and serviced by vendors. And because they expect technologies to evolve more quickly, they anticipate more turnover, and a more rapid pace of turnover, of technologies in the enterprise of the future. 

“CIOs need to see themselves as chief integration officers and chief influence officers,” Gupta says. “CIOs need to not only understand the interrelationship of every component of the corporation’s machine, but they also need to influence all component owners to ensure the interrelated components are assembled to operate for the best outcomes for the corporation.” 

Ready or not? 

Another expected difference in the CIOs of the future: that more of them will come from outside of IT, from areas such as finance and operations and marketing. 

Taylor says SIM research has found that this trend is, in fact, already under way with the percent of CIOs who came from functional areas besides IT rising from about 10% to nearly 30% in the past decade. He also says aspiring CIOs who advanced along a tech-oriented career path will feel more pressure to have experience outside of IT in order to make it to the C-suite. 

That said, Taylor says CIOs of the future will continue to need technical acumen to be effective. 

“They still have to have enough capability in technology to walk into rooms with technologists and really understand what they’re saying,” he adds. 

All of which requires CIOs to be more flexible and agile than they are even now, experts say. 

CIOs will have to be able to quickly do deep dives into emerging technologies, rapidly understand how they’d benefit their organizations, formulate governance policies, and be ready to go live at any time. As one CIO says, the days of slow, controlled rollouts may be numbered. (The rapid expansion of ChapGPT use illustrates that point.) 

“A corporation’s ability to change quickly and frequently is the biggest differentiator in the new, fast-changing digital and AI-driven world,” Gupta adds. “Every aspect of the corporation is driven by some form of information technology. Any change to a corporation’s capability runs through IT. CIOs are at the center of every change in the corporation. They are driving and influencing almost every decision for the next version of the corporation.” 

However, Cameron says Forrester research from early 2023 shows most CIOs aren’t ready to meet the expectations that the role will demand in the upcoming years. In fact, he says that research shows most CIOs (58%) are still in what Forrester calls the traditional mode of leading IT. Some 37% are modern and only 6% are “future fit,” with the speed, flexibility, and value-focus required to successfully be a transformative strategic leader for the entire enterprise, and not just the IT department. 

Forrester has also found that organizations with CIOs who meet the firm’s definition of future fit saw their revenue grow from 2021 to 2022 1.6 times more than those with modern or traditional-mode CIOs, Cameron says. 

Despite the percentage of CIOs who have yet to become future fit, Cameron and others say as a group CIOs are indeed up for the challenge of what’s ahead and are working to become the executives needed for the future. As Gupta says: “These are exciting times for CIOs with strategic and transformative track records, who will grow into higher levels with broader influence.” 

CIO, IT Leadership